“Immigrants – We Get the Job Done!”


Stuart Lyle

The hit Broadway show ’Hamilton’ has enjoyed a meteoric rise.  Less than a year ago, it opened off-Broadway, but quickly found traction and was on Broadway by midsummer.  Now shows are sold out well into later this year.  Few would have predicted that a show about founding father Alexander Hamilton would strike such a deep chord with a wide audience.

Much has been made about how the show has brought hip-hop and rap to the mainstream. Commentators have also marveled at the skin color of the cast, which is many shades darker than the historical characters being portrayed.  These are significant, even exciting, elements, but a black and Hispanic cast spitting rap phrases about dead white men is not a classic formula for success.  Those are only the obvious departures from more tried-and-true formulas for a Broadway hit.   What holds audience attention, and indeed the attention of many who, despite not having seen the show, obsessively listen to the Cast Recording, is neither the music nor the cast themselves, but the words – all 20,000+ of them.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show, nursed it to maturity over 8 years, and now stars in it, has succeeded in bringing to life the long-forgotten, but oft-mythologized era of the founding of the United States.  In a rare act of conviction in today’s highly commercialized entertainment realm, Miranda put the content ahead of the demographics.  Instead of polling to find the market, a la Carville’s “triangulation” that shifted Bill Clinton’s agenda ever rightward, Miranda wanted a Broadway hit on his own terms, undiluted by commercial exigency.

The show tells the story of Hamilton, the archetypical immigrant, a ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore,’ who, in a rags to riches story, claws his way up in New York.  And in this telling of the history, we encounter colorful, but weak, petty, and greedy people who tell us more about ourselves, about America, than could ever be gleaned from the predigested myths peddled by mainstream politicians extolling “the American dream.”  Most intriguing is the figure of Aaron Burr, the “villain” of many history books who, in the show’s denouement, guns Hamilton down in a duel for honor.

While Hamilton represents the ascendency of finance and Wall Street, he is also a fiery and obsessive personality, idealistic, but hell-bent on following his own ideals.  In a powerful number, Thomas Jefferson describes Hamilton in terms easily translatable to 2016:

I get no satisfaction witnessing his fits of passion
The way he primps and preens and dresses like the pits of fashion
Our poorest citizens, our farmers, live ration to ration
As Wall Street robs ‘em blind in search of chips to cash in

Burr too is hardly distinguishable from many of today’s public figures: think Donald Trump.  In the show, he is regarded as something of an oddity for his open self-promotion in campaigning for president.  He slithers away from taking any clear stands on the pressing issues of the day as he runs for president against Jefferson.

JEFFERSON] He’s not very forthcoming on any particular stances
[MADISON] Ask him a question: it glances off, he obfuscates, he dances
[JEFFERSON] And they say I’m a Francophile: at least they know I know where France is!

Nonetheless, he is popularly regarded as a genuine person, or as one voter puts it, ‘Like you could grab a beer with him.’  (Where have we heard this before?) Burr is portrayed as elusive and possibly unprincipled (‘talk less, smile more…’), driven primarily by his desire to be ’in the room where it happens.’  Sound familiar?

The seeds of our current state of empire in dissolution and corruption are all visible in Miranda’s account of our country’s founding.   Hamilton is a far from unambiguous hero, selling out New York as the new nation’s capital in order to keep his job and keep the Treasury in New York.  Burr represents the future devolution of the political sphere into unprincipled self-aggrandizing tribes, with little concern about the impact of their policies on the population.

Hamilton is a cautionary tale.  It relates the almost miraculous joining of the disparate thirteen colonies, who ‘somehow defeat a global superpower‘ of the era, and the machinations required to mold the colonies into “these United States.”

No one really knows,
how the game is played,
the art of the trade,
how the sausage gets made.

Rather than fanning the myth of perfection, Hamilton highlights the corrosive flaws in the original edifice that have inexorably led to the distorted ‘American dream’ we live in today.  And what better way to tell that story than in the vernacular of the today’s dispossessed, using rap, hip-hop, and an ensemble of color.

I Have the Honor to Be,
Your Obedient Servant,
S. Lyle

14 thoughts on ““Immigrants – We Get the Job Done!”

  1. I don’t expect to ever see this show about which I’ve heard such raves, but I can still make a small contribution to discussion: if my memory hasn’t gone altogether haywire, I believe that the books by historian Joseph H. Ellis on the subject of the Founding Fathers state that Hamilton was greatly despised by many of his peers. Probably the majority were rooting for Burr to triumph in that (in)famous duel! And yet, where is Aaron Burr on our currency? Hamilton is there because he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. Lose a duel, get enshrined on the nation’s currency! Not such a bad deal! Except for the little problem that nowadays, unlike the early days of the so-called republic, the linen/paper hybrid we call “money” is backed by NOTHING of true, intrinsic value. But that, as it’s said, is a whole other can of worms to open.

      • Good one, Bill Astore! BTW, when I was trying to build a house in Vermont 12 years ago (a long tale with sad ending I won’t go into), the contractor I hired to do the foundation had a wall poster in his office. (He resided in rural Massachusetts, near the border with Vermont.) It declared “MY President is Charlton Heston” with a portrait of that, um, fine gentleman. Lest any reader not get it, Mr. Heston was Honorary Lifetime President of the National Rifle Association.

  2. Mention of Burr and Hamilton always reminds me that two hundred years ago, as now, our leading political and economic oligarchs could literally get away with murder. At least Aron Burr did his own killing with his own hands whereas our present puppet presidents have uncounted numbers of people murdered by legions of mercenary minions whose numbers and identities no one even bothers to count or acknowledge. Things have certainly gotten worse by orders of magnitude. Way past time to separate our infantile “leaders” from their murderous toys.

  3. While I always applaud and encourage attempts to write in verse, the samples on offer above do not sound especially well constructed to me, especially as they exhibit little interest in rhythmic consistency. Then again, audience expectations change over time and I hardly know what listeners in the United States today consider interesting or amusing lyrics. Personally, have always found rap or hip-hop lyrics both tedious and heavy-handed: bad poetry by people who cannot sing or play musical instruments. Still, the concept of casting a movie or play with unconventional actors does have potential. Like, for instance:

    The Day that Mars Stood Still

    Haven’t seen the show. Don’t think I’ll do so.
    Hardly sounds like a Robinson Crusoe
    On Mars
    with a gay Chinese duo
    As Friday and her/his new belle/beau
    Moaning “Klaatu barada Nikto”
    When caught in flagrante delicto.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” copyright 2016

    Something like that …

    • I can’t pass up an opportunity to comment on “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951–yes, 65 years young this year), one of my favorite movies (of ANY genre) of all time. “b. traven” is likely aware of all this and is just joining in some pseudo-risque fun here. The filmmakers never revealed a translation for the phrase Patricia Neal’s character must utter to the massive robot, Gort, after the interplanetary emissary Klaatu is gunned down by the US Army on the streets of Washington D.C. (Our good ol’ enlightened military at work way back then!) Film scholars and fans have theorized that it means “Don’t destroy the planet”–that is, don’t reduce Earth to a “burned-out ember” to avenge Klaatu’s death. One of the most intelligently scripted (Edmund North, based on a story by one Harry Bates) and executed American movies ever. Director: Robert Wise; Music: Bernard Herrmann. Michael Rennie was “born to play Klaatu,” as they say. Fun Trivia: Spencer Tracy and…wait for it…Ronald Reagan (!!!) had been considered for the role!!

  4. Thanks Greg. In 1951 I was too busy finishing up my grad thesis and working in the steel mills on weekends to go to the movies. Some how i thought “Klaatu” was part of some foreign language that Mike had run across. Where does the “barada Nikto” come in the movie?

    • “traven”–Fortunately for you, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is rather frequently shown on cable/satellite channels. Actually, I have a spare DVD copy I could mail you, assuming you do have a DVD player. The complete phrase is “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.” The dying Klaatu instructs Earthwoman Patricia Neal, who has come to trust him, that she must deliver this message to the robot Gort or “There’s no telling what he might do” [upon learning of Klaatu’s death at hands of the Army]. This happens about 5/6 of the way into the film, near the climax. What I most love about this movie is that, at the height of McCarthyism, it dared to suggest that military madness in general, not solely “the Russkies,” posed the greatest threat to our planet’s existence via nuclear weaponry. It is therefore a brave, as well as keenly intelligent, bit of celluloid.

    • Actually, b.traven, I wanted to poke a little fun at the casting of unorthodox — say, racial minorities, for example — in film or stage productions normally reserved for more “traditional” (Republican code word for “white”) actors, as if an unusual racial mix of actors and their supposedly different views of life somehow has a value in and of itself. The featured article somehow seemed to imply this. Some really good satire or social commentary can come from the creative casting of implausible actors in ostensibly “straight” roles. Sometimes not so much. Having not seen the production in question, I can’t say in this particular case. I only had the example lyrics to go on.

      At any rate, the concept of virtuous implausible casting led me to imagine a gay Chinese couple doing a science-fiction rip-off of Robinson Crusoe on Mars* which I recently saw (parts of) on television here in Taiwan. Playing around with the idea of gender reversals in key roles — he/she, her/his, that sort of thing — I thought of the phrase in flagrante delicto, the meaning of which — i.e., caught red handed (if not red-faced) literally screwing around — I supposed literate adults pretty much knew without need of explanation (which I have provided here for younger readers). This choice of phrase required a rhyme for “delicto” and given the science/fantasy setting on Mars as a backdrop, the famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto,” from The Day the Earth Stood Still suggested itself. This reference, naturally, then led to the title of the poem.

      As an additional technical consideration, every line of verse in the example lyrics ends with the same two-syllable or single-syllable pronunciation: “passion/fashion/ration,” “played/trade/made,” etc. Therefore, I adhered to that limitation as well. However, I quickly ran out of things to say in such a restricted format. However, as Greg Laxer points out in his comments, the visiting alien (of whatever race or gender) requires a lethal enforcer sidekick named Gort to either protect the visiting alien from the hostile natives or to exact total revenge upon them in the obvious case where they would kill first and await posthumous proof of innocence later — President Barack Obama’s preferred course of action against impoverished foreign peasants and their “threatening,” “bad” wedding parties. But having exhausted one rhyme scheme in only a six-line stanza, I obviously should have included a second stanza to complete the required minority LGBT cast. Hence:

      Some question the need to contort
      The meaning of “art” just for sport
      Just so Earthlings on Mars can report
      Watching Klaatu and Friday cavort
      With both leading roles of the queer Asian sort
      And Caitlyn “Bruce” Jenner** as Gort.

      There. Fixed it.

      Notes courtesy of Wikipedia)

      Note * Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a 1964 independently made color Techniscope science fiction film distributed by Paramount Pictures that was produced by Aubrey Schenck, directed by Byron Haskin, and stars Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, and Adam West.

      Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a science fiction retelling of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

      Note ** Caitlyn Marie Jenner (born October 28, 1949), formerly known as Bruce Jenner, is an American television personality and retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete. Since 2007, she has been appearing on E!’s reality television program Keeping Up with the Kardashians and is currently starring in the reality TV show I Am Cait, which focuses on her gender transition.

      • Oh my, Mike, now that IS some interesting casting for Gort!! Technically, Gort is a member of the “race” of robots the inhabitants of other “peopled” planets, acting in cooperation, have crafted to enforce the non-aggression principle. They are the police force; Klaatu, as an organic entity, is understood to be “expendable” on the mission to Earth. He was sent in the belief the inhabitants of Earth would relate more easily to a living being who has assumed human morphological form. (No hint is provided as to how his species appears in its natural state.) [Incidentally, Gort happens to be a town in County Galway, Ireland, and the residence of W.B. Yeats! I made a point of visiting there in 1990.] If readers need a little more nudging to seek out this “ancient” movie, if not already familiar with it, I also find it fascinating that it features two real media stars of the time: columnist/radio/TV commentator Drew Pearson and the very rightwing commentator Gabriel Heater. We hear the latter in a radio broadcast call for the destruction of this “monster” Klaatu, on whom he of course has never set eyes. Fear, irrational human fear, of the unknown is a major theme of “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” As to “Robinson Crusoe On Mars,” I know a lot of sci-fi fans take a very warm liking to it but it doesn’t really do much for me. To each their own…

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